MANILA, Philippines ? The surviving houses on Herran (Pedro Gil) Street along the banks of the Pasig River in Sta. Ana are rare and excellent examples of residential architecture from the late 19th century.
More importantly, around those colonial riverside homes, a lifestyle has evolved among the area?s residents.
These houses would probably be among the last of their specific type of architecture remaining along Manila?s decaying Pasig. There once were similar vacation houses by the river, in areas like Bacood in Sta. Mesa, through Mandaluyong to Makati and beyond. Today, most of these houses are gone.
Realizing the value of Manila?s lost river heritage, the city of Makati is launching a restoration project to reconstruct some of the destroyed riverside houses in a small stretch of its Pasig frontage along JP Rizal Street.
In Sta. Ana, the original houses still exist. Demolishing them removes the last few authentic examples of Manila riverside heritage, while other areas like Makati are now reconstructing similar houses that are no longer there.
Built at around the same time, this group of surviving houses (Jesuit House, OB Montessori School, the Lichauco residence) are not of the bahay-na-bato architectural type found in dense urban locations such as Intramuros and Binondo in Manila.
Although architecturally similar to the bahay-na-bato, these were constructed as riverside vacation houses, with verandas and wide openings to frame river views and catch the cooling breeze that come from the river, filtered through large, leafy gardens.
Totally suited to the sultry tropics, the architecture of the Sta. Ana houses is typically Philippine, following traditional bahay-na-bato design. Ground floors of stone are covered by the main floor constructed totally of wood, where the family living quarters are.
Although the houses have been remodeled or expanded over the years to suit changing needs (one became a seminary, another a children?s school), the overall effect is still one of architectural integrity, meaning, they are all still in basically good shape.
If authenticity is an issue, all of the subsequent interventions could be removed to once again expose the original, authentic ?bones? of the structure, as I have noticed from my inspection of the Lichauco and OB Montessori structures.
Not only are the houses of absolute heritage value, the surrounding neighborhood can be considered vanishing Manila heritage as well. The pre-war public market, reconstructed along pretty much the same lines after World War II damage, is an excellent example of the traditional Filipino ?palengke (market)? design developed during the American colonial regime.
Totally in tune with its tropical environment, a high, double-roofed structure, open on all four sides with sufficient overhead ventilation for natural cooling, covers the large market space. It would be called architecturally brilliant today because of how suited it is to the tropics.
It is green architecture of highest standards. But it is simply traditional architecture that was sensitive to its environment, a lesson for today?s architects who have lost environmental sensitivity.
Bancas docked behind the market to bring people and produce. Pre-war Manila relied on its vast waterway network of interlinked esteros (sewers) and the Pasig for transportation. Sta. Ana continues to be a major river terminal.
The Sta. Ana streetscape, especially around Plaza Calderon and Plaza Hugo, are good examples of vanishing traditional Manila streetscapes that combine various types of architecture, from the Spanish to American colonial periods, followed by the post-World War II period to the 1960s, and into more contemporary architecture.
Taken as a whole, the mix of architectural styles shows the evolution of a neighborhood through time, how once it was far enough from the city to be the place where the elite escaped Manila heat. A century later, it evolved into a tightly-packed, urbanized residential quarter in the middle of Manila.
The mix might appear as architectural hodgepodge. In reality, it comes through as a pretty strong visual image. In most neighborhoods all over the Philippines, this mix of styles is being demolished in favor of generic contemporary architecture, often bland and of inferior quality when compared to what it was built over.
The Sta. Ana mix of architecture and neighborhood lifestyle is a quickly vanishing facet of Filipino culture, because we associate that particular architectural mix with poverty, being old-fashioned and anti-progress.
The lifestyle lived by its residents within those spaces?a tightly knit community living in either simple houses or apartments (accesorias)?made walking to the market or the little shops a pleasant experience, allowing lots of human contact. Friends and neighbors met while worshipping at church and going to schools.
Such ordinary activities defined the Sta. Ana lifestyle, encouraging much social interaction among friends as they walked around the neighborhood doing their everyday chores or business. Call it an urban barrio.